Playing Unit 51 in Baxter State Park
The last time Dean, Charity, Bruce, and I waited for an ambulance to come, the story didn't have a happy ending. We tried in vain for close to an hour on that nightmarish August evening to get a twenty-four-year-old kid's heart to start again after he'd taken a fairly direct lightning strike. Rain thrashed the woods and the sky boomed like artillery fire as we hooked him up to an AED, we breathed for him, we heaved on his chest. His mother was right there helping, his brother nearby, bent over in pain from the burnt flesh that hung off his legs like strips of bark from a birch tree. Nothing. We couldn't help him. We were fighting physics, battling biology – it was just too much of a jolt.
That was the first fatality I ever worked in the park – I've responded to one other as a volunteer firefighter. In fact, all of the other rescues I've done thus far in Baxter involved non-life-threatening injuries. I didn't always know that, however. There was the time when a young woman burst into my ranger station, out of breath and covered from head to toe in mud, raving that a young summer camper couldn't breathe and was going to die. When I reached the girl, a mile up Mount OJI, it turned out she was just having a panic attack. With some deep breaths, something to drink, and some rest, she was fine. Most of the other rescues I've been involved with involved not much more than broken bones. But it was painfully clear last August that our patient, a kid from Peaks Island, was up against it. Life was in the balance. When the EMTs arrived and made their pronouncement we all – and there were more than just the four of us – took it in varying degrees of hard.
And we were reminded of it for the rest of the summer as a number of people came to see the site where this young man died. An unusual pilgrimage, but one that seemed healing for many people. There was no real relief for us except the consolation of knowing we did all we could and the simple comfort of time passed.
This time, as the four of us anxiously awaited the arrival of the ambulance from Millinocket, things were different. We actually had vital signs, the patient was alert and able to tell us where she hurt, and the prospects were much brighter. And thank goodness for that. This was a friend of ours, a woman who, with her husband, volunteers so regularly at the park she's almost staff.
It was National Trails Day and the couple came to help out. BSP typically hosts a Trails Day event each spring, when dozens of good-hearted folks arrive to ably assist us in clearing the pathways of the park and doing various other projects. The husband spent the day in the woods. His wife was giving a hand to the BSP alums who were preparing the BBQ at Kidney Pond. And the four of us rangers were there working on a cabin. By the end of the day we were hot and sweaty and we could smell the aromas of the grill.
Dinner was almost ready, the trail crews – both the park's and the volunteers – were back and a feeling of fun spreading across the big field at Kidney Pond. The college students of our trail crew were running around, throwing the lacrosse ball, and laughing away. The volunteers were getting to know each other. And the former staff members were talking old times as they flipped chicken and burgers. BBQ bonhomie all around.
Then the husband hurried over and asked us to come have a look at his wife. We'd all seen her on the porch of a nearby cabin not long before, taking a minute out of the sun. Now she was on its floor, her face flush, complaining of a pain in her abdomen. Unbeknownst to us, she'd vomited earlier and had been feeling unwell all afternoon. We very quickly concluded it was her appendix, which meant immediate evacuation. If it had burst and she was unaware of it, it could be only hours before she was in real trouble. Simple inflammation usually meant a couple of days before toxic fluids spread throughout her belly. Either way it was a trip to the ER.
We called the paramedics and made her as comfortable as we could. And I was reminded of the last time we were all together, willing the ambulance to hurry up as it banged its way along the park's corduroy roads. Once we got her safely aboard, Bruce and I drove the couple's vehicle to the ER so that the concerned husband could ride with his wife in the bus. When we dropped the car off at the hospital, I had a vision of Johnny and Roy, Gage and DeSoto, Squad 51, Los Angeles County.
As a kid my favorite show was Emergency!, the 70s action-drama about a pair of paramedic firefighters from LA. It's why I ended up as Unit 51 on the Appleton Volunteer Fire Department and why many people of my generation joined rescue squads. At the end of episodes, Johnny and Roy would often be at the hospital with their patients and there would be smiles all around as it was revealed that the injured parties would be fine.
Bruce and I drove off confident that we'd gotten our friend into the health-care system in plenty of time and that she would be back volunteering at the park before we knew it. Compared to last year's event, it was a Hollywood ending.
At least when it comes to real life, I like those kinds best.
Andy Vietze, Andrew when he wears a tie, is a Maine State Park Ranger stationed at Baxter State Park, contributing editor of Down East, avid soccer fan/rabid soccer player and Unit 51 on the all-volunteer Appleton Volunteer Fire Department.